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Empowering technicians: our journey

  • 5 October 2022
  • By Sam Kingman

Midlands Innovation is a strategic research partnership of eight research intensive universities in the Midlands. Funding was awarded by Research England in 2020 for ‘TALENT’ – a transformation programme to advance status and opportunity for technical skills, roles and careers. The TALENT Commission report was published in 2022. Professor Sam Kingman, Pro-Vice Chancellor Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham contributes to the blog series on championing the role of technicians in higher education and research.

Universities have always been excellent at recognising the achievements of their academic staff, celebrating research successes and offering clear career progression paths for those in research and teaching roles. At the University of Nottingham, we have extended this recognition and broadened career opportunities to include all our staff. A recent focus has been on our technical specialists who are at the core of our successes in teaching, research and knowledge exchange. 

The University of Nottingham is home to almost 700 technicians supporting student education and research across faculties and disciplines. From the new Power Electronics and Machines Centre, home to three purpose-built research labs, through to our Biomedical Research Centre, soon be home to the UK’s most powerful Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner, our research infrastructure only delivers to its full potential because of our technical experts. 

The journey to empowering our technicians started in 2017 and has allowed us to strengthen our faculties’ capabilities. Our findings have helped to inform insights gathered in the TALENT Commission, which provides strategic insights into the UK’s technical workforce and sets out a blueprint for the next generation of technical staff to support the future of UK science, engineering and the creative industries. 

The first time that technical manager colleagues from the University were brought together in the same room was in 2017. From that meeting, a five-year vision was established with core principles addressing Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) issues, improving technical careers, enhancing visibility, and creating progression opportunities across disciplines and job families, which is part of our Technician Commitment pledge. 

At that time, technician job roles stopped at the University of Nottingham’s level five – there was no opportunity for technical managers and experts to progress beyond that. This was a major equality issue that we addressed by introducing levels six and seven roles, which is a significant shift in improving diversity in the university. Technicians have very specialist skills that are vital, particularly in research and teaching, so recognising this through relevant job profiles has allowed us to retain and attract the best talent. 

Better understanding the demographics of our technician community from an EDI perspective has helped us understand the challenges and opportunities involved in strengthening the workforce. Within engineering and physical sciences, the technical workforce is mostly male, while in biosciences, medicine and biology, the majority are female, for instance. Despite greater numbers of female technical staff in these disciplines, there is a shortage of female technical leaders, something the TALENT programme is trying to address through the Herschel Programme for Women in Technical Leadership, which launched in 2021. 

This data provided a foundation for the national workforce trends published in the TALENT Commission, which has shaped recommendations on EDI interventions to address these challenges.

Our five-year plan created a new landscape across the University for technicians by allowing time for development opportunities; by providing technicians funding to attend conferences; and through work around recognition, such as ensuring the inclusion of technicians on any patents and research papers they are involved in.  

Simple changes to how we approach costing for technicians on research projects has reaped financial benefits across the university. We are now ensuring that technical colleagues are appropriately costed in research proposals as this wasn’t always the case. 

A set of guidelines was created by the Faculty of Engineering and shared across the University to set a standard, ensuring we maximised full cost recovery from funders. Now, funders have the confidence that we have the right skills to deliver research and we’re demonstrating this from the beginning within our grant proposals. More funders are asking for costing details of technical roles and setting this as a criterion within the application process. This change in policy from external funders signals the right direction of travel and is driven by the TALENT project and the Technician Commitment initiative. 

Crucially, these changes to job roles, personal development and funding have been led collaboratively by senior technical managers across the University, not in silos. It’s only possible to create change successfully if the whole University is on board.  

Many of the initiatives piloted at University of Nottingham and within the wider Midlands Innovation partnership have helped to inform recommendations on how the wider sector can ensure the UK has a technical workforce fit for the future. 

I now sit on the TALENT Advisory Board, a group of representatives from higher education, research and industry offering strategic direction and operational support to implement the TALENT Commission recommendations. 

Everyone on the board is responsible for implementing the commission recommendations within their respective institutions – we’re effectively acting as change agents within the sector. I strongly believe the UK has a real opportunity to strengthen its science, engineering and creative outputs, but research quality and impact success is driven by teams where a high-quality technical community is needed. 

We must reach a point where technical skills, roles and careers are aspired to so we can meet future demand and deliver our ambitions – not just within our own institutions, but nationally too.  

Explore our blogs on the TALENT Commission:

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